Asian Americans and the Law: The Constitution in Action

Last week, the Branstetter Litigation and Dispute Resolution program hosted Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Chin spoke to students about the overarching theme of how Asian Americans have affected and been affected by the U.S. Constitution within the legal system. He dove into American history, highlighting sentiments of racism and violence towards Asian Americans that materialized in various cases, policies, and events.  

Three Case Studies  

Judge Chin discussed three legal events from the late 19th and early 20th century with implications that remain relevant today.  

He began with an overview of the Pigtail Ordinance of 1873, passed in an effort to increase the sanitary conditions of San Franciscan prisons. The ordinance had significant cultural and religious ramifications for Chinese prisoners– their long hair, kept in secure ponytails, had cultural significance, and cutting them off meant welcoming disgrace and misfortune. A prisoner named Ho Ah Kow sued an individual police officer for making him cut his hair, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court voted in favor of Ah Kow, claiming that he was not properly protected under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  

Judge Chin continued with the 1885 Chinese expulsion from Eureka, California, precipitated by the death of a white Eureka councilman at the hands of a Chinese gangster. Chinese residents were forced to leave town under the threat of death; Eureka’s Chinatown was demolished, and nearly all Chinese ended up being sent to San Francisco. Many people sued the city for damages, loss of property, and for a failure to be protected by the gang activity that led to their initial exodus. The city defended itself, claiming that the Chinese population left voluntarily. The city stripped litigants’ claims, and the case was eventually dismissed.  

The final case Judge Chin discussed was the 1900 Plague Outbreak in San Francisco. After a Chinese man contracted bubonic plague, the Board of Health quarantined Chinatown, but only after all white residents were escorted out of the area. If Asian Americans wanted to leave the quarantine zone, they had to receive a vaccine. As a result, three lawsuits were filed on equal protection grounds, stemming chiefly from the economic impact the quarantine and mandatory inoculation had on individuals and businesses.  

Recognition of Asian Identity 

In his conclusion, Judge Chin emphasized how his identity informs his passion for Asian American legal history. As an immigrant , Judge Chin absorbs the history of Asian American legal and Constitutional struggles through a special lens, but he finds himself excited by the opportunity for people to learn about the history of those who have often been ignored and overlooked in American history. Judge Chin referenced a few law schools and universities, such as SMU and Stanford, who are adopting Asian American legal studies into their curriculum, which he cites a an important first step in generating awareness and interest.  

Judge Chin believes there are aspects of his identity that do and do not influence his decision-making on the bench. He stands by the fact that good judges are not agenda-driven and that the law is the law. However, when he enters his professional space, his identity and history supplement his values and decision-making abilities.